The Backstreets of San Francisco

The hidden alleyways of San Francisco’s Chinatown get ready for a face-lift

San Francisco’s Chinatown, huddled between the upscale Italian restaurants of North Beach and the glassy towers of the Financial District, is an immigrant community with a street life and population density that rivals Manhattan. It’s also a prime tourist attraction, with hordes traipsing up Grant Avenue by tour bus, and slow-moving car.

Behind its well-traveled corridors, though, Chinatown is crisscrossed by a little-known network of alleyways, where many residents live and work. These are some of the oldest passages in the city, dating to the neighborhood’s settlement in the 1850s; they are also some of the most forlorn. Many just need repaving and better lighting, while others have become nocturnal dumping grounds, a place for drug transactions, or gang haunts.

“Alleyways are neglected because they are out of the way, they are in the back of people’s minds,” explains Jasmine Kaw, a planner with the Chinatown Resource Center. Kaw has been working with the San Francisco Department of Public Works to draft the Chinatown Alleyway Master Plan, a road map for the restoration and revitalization of the neighborhood’s narrowest streets. The plan will be implemented beginning this winter, when 10 of the district’s most deteriorated alleys will get a facelift. “The alleyways are Chinatown’s fish heads,” Kaw says. “Some don’t even exist in city records. This project is about making fish heads into fillets. We started this program with the premise that someone has to take care of them.”

The project originated more than 17 years ago, with a study by Berkeley architect Mui Ho, who saw the alleys as a potential solution to the neighborhood’s chronic shortage of public space. They did not have to be poorly lit backstreets clogged with double-parked vehicles; instead, they could become parks, gathering places, sites for public art. Ho’s study ignited community interest and convinced city leaders to recognize the alleys as vital to Chinatown’s infrastructure, history, and community.

“The locals are not on the main streets,” says Dorothy Quock, a tour leader and Chinatown historian. “Even today, the side streets are where our community exists.” Quock was born on Spofford Alley, a block-long street in the core of Chinatown. A walk down Spofford reveals a quiet, earless lane with a constant flow of foot traffic. Fire escapes are draped with drying laundry, and a tangle of electric lines crosses the sky overhead. Sewing machines rattle from behind the metal-grated doors of a garment factory, and from a basement social club comes the faint sound of shuffling mah-jongg tiles. The alley receives direct sunlight for a couple brief hours at midday; at night it is intimidatingly dark. Sporadic streetlights cast a yellow glow that competes with the dim, blue flicker of television screens from apartment windows.

“Little China” was once on the southern edge of San Francisco, but during the two decades that followed the Gold Rush, the city rapidly grew around it. The enclave’s population swelled from about 4,000 people in 1850 to more than 12,000 a decade later. Fierce segregation and racial violence kept Chinatown compact and densely settled, hemmed in within a six-block radius.

To maximize commercial space, the main streets of Chinatown were connected by numerous small alleys, lined with tightly parceled storefronts. A municipal survey of 1885 shows alleys crammed with barbershops, drugstores, hockshops, and locksmiths. The report also reveals the seedy side of alley life—many storefronts served as opium dens, gambling houses, or were simply labeled “C.P.” for Chinese Prostitution. An 1880 report on Chinatown’s “nuisances” details the conditions of many of the narrow streets; of Spofford it says, “Every house there is a direct violation of all sanitary and police regulations and fire ordinances. Filth, stench and smoke, over-crowded habitation, houses of prostitution of the vilest sort, court-yards covered with slime, etc., abound there, in contradistinction to all civilization.”

Over time, as stricter policing and a growing demand for housing gradually displaced more notorious tenants, many of these licentious backstreets evolved into quieter neighborhoods. Churches, factories, and benevolent associations that aided recent immigrants set up headquarters on these alleyways, preferring them to the larger streets. As architect Christopher Yip has noted, “The alleys were not at all different from passages in towns and villages of native China and such a use of space seemed normal.” Accounts of Chinatown alleys at the turn of the century portray them as quieter and cleaner than the main streets.

Many of the alleyways acquired Cantonese names—after their varied pasts—in place of the legal ones bestowed by city founders; some are still used within the community. St. Louis Alley was called the Alley of Burning Fire, in reference to the numerous blazes that took place there—many houses were and still are fire hazards. Beckett Street was called Plain Language John, which, according to local lore, was the nickname of an American interpreter who lived on the street and spoke Cantonese fluently. Other alley names allude to the commerce that once took place there. Old Chinatown Lane, a narrow, dead-end street, is referred to as Horse Stable Alley. At the turn of the century, horses were kept there for hauling coaches for Chinese weddings and funerals. Waverly Alley was known as Fifteen Cent Street, named for its preponderance of barbers, who at one time charged 15 cents for a haircut.

The 1906 earthquake and resulting fire decimated Chinatown. In the disaster’s aftermath, newspaper headlines reported a fictitious subterranean city below Chinatown, connected by a labyrinth of tunnels more than 10 stories deep; these xenophobic and exaggerated accounts played on whites’ fears of the neighborhood’s expansion. Although city lawmakers had long planned to relocate Chinatown on the southern edge of San Francisco to make way for the growing Financial District, after the earthquake, Chinatown was rebuilt where it had stood.

During the reconstruction, merchants pooled funds to redesign the district. The architect they commissioned—a Caucasian—created a pastiche of Asian styles, lining main streets with pagoda-shaped buildings painted in garish colors—the tourist Chinatown. The infrastructure of alleyways, however, was preserved, and they were filled with larger, multistory masonry buildings. Of the 54 alleys that existed before the 1906 earthquake, 41 remain.

Over the next 10 years, 31 of these alleyways are scheduled for renovation. “This is a plan made with community involvement,” says Kaw. “It’s a balance between the demand for public space and the needs of local business.” The plan mandates an overall improvement in the appearance and the safety of these back streets; with city and federal funds, lighting will be improved and the alleys will be paved and landscaped. It also calls for bilingual street signs, burying the maze of overhead utility lines underground, and restricting vehicles to selected streets. “Once you renovate an alley, people begin to appreciate it more,” explains Kaw. “Then they give it the respect it deserves.”

This article was originally published in Metropolis magazine. © Philip Krayna.
Photo by @sage_solar. Used under Creative Commons.